Christmas in Paris
We have just returned from 2 weeks in Paris, spending Christmas with family. It had been 3 years since our last Christmas together, which my younger self used to think was frequent enough, but now that I am in my late forties with aging parents, every visit becomes more precious. Our cruising lifestyle means that “popping over” is not that easy, instead we need to plan well in advance not only flights, but also care of the boat in our absence. Add the notion that we never know when the next reunion will be, and things end up more emotional than they used to be.
So when we did arrive, every possible excursions or tourist activities I had invariably planned, went out the window as I found myself catching up with relatives and friends not seen since 2006 or earlier, as well as 3 years’ worth of “news updates” with my parents. You’d think that with Skype and Facebook, we would have kept up with the gossip, but frankly, nothing beats face to face conversation sitting at the breakfast (lunch and dinner) table. My husband coped very well. Over the years, he’s learnt to leave us talking French and goes for long walks in the neighbouring park knowing that on his return, we will still be chatting while cooking the next meal. Or he may be lucky and I am ready to go out. My children also enjoy this slower pace, taking delight in tasting French food cooked with love by their grandmother (they acknowledge that I also cook with love on the boat, but only once a day!)
I did have plans to go on a food safari in Paris, even set a Pinterest board with places to go and see. But a quick look at the crowds outside Laduree shops, menu prices at trendy restaurants like Au petit Sud Ouest or L’Avant Comptoir, made us retreat and think of a plan B. We are, after all, a couple of semi-retired yachties, and while we enjoy good food and easy life, we also have to be discerning. Rather than focus on the hype associated with celebrity chefs and “not to be missed “ restaurants, we decided to spend our money on the best produces we could find. France in general, is known for its wonderful fresh produce and local open markets making them available all over the country. Located 20 minutes south of Paris, my parent’s home is blessed with such a neighbourhood market, in Juvisy sur Orge where literally every kind of fresh food can be found as well as inexpensive household items (like past season designer wear, shoes, fabric remnants , kitchenware…enough to fit out a small apartment!) This market has been around for as long as I can remember, I used to accompany my mother as a child and play with the live animals at the poultry stand (not realising that the cute rabbits and chicken were destined for consumption!), sample cheese and pates , search for cheap clothing…
Nowadays, there are no longer live animals, but the bargain clothing guys are still here, as well as the cheese monger, Mr Barbet, the “charcutier” Mr Guette, Freddo the “volailler” and jean-Pierre the vegetable guy.
I am prolonging the family ritual whenever possible bringing my own children, who actually enjoy the unique atmosphere of camaraderie and sense of community (most stall holders have dealt with my parents twice a week for nearly 40 years, and have heard of us “the cruising Australians”), second only to the free sampling! Both Marc and Anne can’t get over how the simple question “What is that?” leads to a chunk of cheese/pate/sausage/bread offered on the tip of a knife with a “Goute!” ( “Have a taste!”). Palate education is what it’s all about, and at the kids request, we’ve filled our baskets with “Pate au piment d’Espelette” (chicken pate with red chili), “escargots” (snails), “magret de canard” (duck breasts), Emmental cheese and Corsican clementines. Terry would not be outdone, selecting his own “produits du terroir” (regional produce), like Morbier cheese, duck legs, foie gras, and prawns. Coming back to the house, with our produce laden baskets, my mother would then take over with the cooking, instructing us to set up the table and be at the ready. In these circumstances, why go out?
Christmas meals followed pretty much the same pattern, except that we ordered stuff in advance to ensure availability. Terry and I volunteered to pick everything up at the market early on Christmas Eve. It was a grey, dark and windy day, not quite the snowy weather we had been waiting for but still wintery enough to confine us inside the house, light up a fire and prepare Christmas Eve feast. Like most French people, we had seafood for starters, namely raw oysters from the Ile de Re, freshly chucked by my Dad. That was a treat for us, as both Terry and I stopped eating oysters after tasting some fairly ordinary specimens in the US last year, and knowing someone who died from bacterial infection after eating a batch there. I am pleased to report that these Charentaise little numbers not only tasted great (fresh and briny) but didn’t cause any after effects. Main course followed with a leg of lamb roasted and cut to perfection by Terry, and we rounded the meal with a feather light Chocolate Buche de Noel.
Christmas morning was supposed to be an elaborate brunch of breads, quiches, muffins, juices, etc… but with 7 people waking up at different times, some not caring about food much, we took the simple road and dug out the “raclette machine” for everyone to melt their own Mont D’Or cheese, grill their own bacon slices, and serve it over fresh baguettes. Terry thought it far too indulgent still recovering from the previous night’s meal, and elected to go for a 3 hour walk instead, along with my cousin Sonia (who, I am sure would have skipped the exercise, had she been told about brunch!)
My argument was that with a big Christmas dinner planned, a substantial brunch made more sense than a small breakfast followed by lunch (with the time involved in cooking and washing up). Indeed dinner was not only a big “do”, catering for 10 people, but also happened quite late as we waited for everyone to be present (the lot of blended families, where some of us had to spend part of the festivities with one side of relatives then got caught in traffic on their way to our dinner). Terry and the kids started to worry that Christmas day would be over before we finished dinner and opened gifts, but we managed to avoid that by introducing the Australian tradition of gathering for aperitifs in the kitchen while preparing dinner (as opposed to the French way of waiting for everything and everyone to be ready before having your first drink) and declaring a Present Opening “pause” between the entrée of smoked salmon and prawn salad and the turkey main course! And just as yet another Buche de Noel was brought out for dessert, my Dad announced it was midnight and Christmas was over. We made it just in time!